When you think about bunkers, you might be apt to think of the 1950s and people building basement and backyard fallout shelters during the Cold War. But there’s a second “Doom Boom” going on right now, and people aren’t just burrowing into the earth to protect themselves from a nuclear bomb.
My guest today traveled across four continents to explore what’s driving this phenomenon and how it’s manifesting itself in the modern age. His name is Bradley Garrett and he’s a professor of cultural geography and the author of Bunker: Building for the End Times. We begin our conversation with the immersive dive Bradley took into urban exploration for his PhD, and how it led to his fascination with the building of underground bunkers. From there we dip into the history of bunkers, from the ancient subterranean cities built in Turkey to the governmental decisions made during the Cold War that led Americans to build blast shelters in their backyards. From there we dig into why a multi-billion dollar private bunker-building industry has emerged in the present day, and how it’s not being driven by a specific threat, but instead a diffuse sense of dread. We discuss how bunker building breaks down into individual and communal approaches, and why the latter is currently ascendant. Bradley takes us on a tour of two underground communities: one a complex of over 500 subterranean cement rooms in South Dakota, and the other a former nuclear missile silo in Kansas which has been turned into a luxe, 15-story inverted skyscraper of survival condos, complete with swimming pool, dog park, movie theater, and grocery store. We then turn to the modern movement of backyard bunker building, and how it often represents an act of resistance against the surveillance state. We also look at the culture of prepping in different countries, including the building of bug-out vehicles and fire bunkers in Australia. We end our conversation with whether or not Bradley ultimately concluded that bunker building and survival prepping is a rational response to the state of the world, and whether he became a prepper himself.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How Brad’s life as an urban explorer led to his research into bunkers
- How long have humans been building bunkers?
- How did America’s Cold War decisions affect the future of bunker building and prepping?
- What’s driving this second “Doom Boom” we’re seeing?
- The difference between fear and dread
- Two primary approaches to building bunkers
- The Vivos complex in South Dakota
- Turning missile silos into luxe bunkers
- Prepper cultures in other countries
- The unique Mormon approach to disaster prepping
- What are these preppers going to do after the apocalypse?
- Is prepping for the apocalypse a rational response to our world?
- Has Bradley become a prepper?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Explore Everything
- Raven Rock by Garrett Graff
- UK’s Burlington Bunker
- Greenbrier Bunker
- How to Make a Bug-Out Bag
- A Survival Expert’s Guide to Bugging In
- How to Bug-In
- The Doom Boom
- How to Get Off the Grid
- How to Survive a Grid-Down Disaster
- “Home, Sweet, Home?”
- Vivos bunkers
- “A Boom Time for the Bunker Business”
- Inside Survival Condo
- Atlas Survival Shelters
- Bug Out Vehicles
- Hydration for the Apocalypse
- Ezra Taft Benson
Connect With Bradley
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. And when you think about bunkers, you might be apt to think of the 1950s and people building basement and backyard fallout shelters during the Cold War. But there’s a second Doom Boom going on right now, and people aren’t just burrowing into the earth to protect themselves from a nuclear bomb. My guest today traveled across four continents to explore what’s driving this phenomenon and how it’s manifesting itself in the modern age. His name is Bradley Garrett and he’s a professor of cultural geography and the author of Bunker: Building for the End Times. We began our conversation with the immersive dive Bradley took into urban exploration for his PhD, and how it led to his fascination with the building of underground bunkers. From there we dip into the history of bunkers, from the ancient subterranean cities built in Turkey to the government decisions made during the Cold War that led Americans to build blast shelters in their backyards.
From there we dig into why a multi-billion dollar private bunker-building industry has emerged in the present day, and how it’s not being driven by a specific threat, but instead a diffuse sense of dread. We discuss how bunker building breaks down into individual and communal approaches, and why the latter one is ascendant. Bradley then takes us on a tour of two underground communities: One a complex of over 500 subterranean cement rooms in South Dakota, and the other a former nuclear missile silo in Kansas which has been turned into a luxe, 15-story inverted skyscraper of survival condos, complete with a swimming pool, dog park, movie theater, and grocery store. We then turn to the modern movement of backyard bunker building, and how it often represents an act of resistance against the surveillance state. We also look at the culture of prepping in different countries, including the building of bug-out vehicles and fire bunkers in Australia. We end our conversation with whether or not Bradley ultimately concluded that bunker building and survival prepping is a rational response to the state of the world, and whether he became a prepper himself. After the show is over, check out the show notes at AoM.is/bunker.
Alright, Bradley Garrett, welcome to the show.
Brad Garrett: Hey, thanks for having me, Brett. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out, Bunker: Building for the End Times. And this is a, I don’t know, an anthropology, a cultural exploration of the culture of building bunkers and prepping. Before we get to that, let’s talk about your background, ’cause that led into this book. You yourself, you’re an urban explorer, but you’re also a cultural geographer. For those who aren’t familiar with urban exploration, what is it? And then how did you tie that into your academic career?
Brad Garrett: Well, so cultural geography isn’t a huge sub-discipline in the United States, but it’s essentially a cross-section between geography and anthropology. So I find interesting groups of people who are kind of redefining the spaces around them, and I did my PhD with these urban explorers who were sneaking into off-limit spaces and cities. They were sneaking into abandoned buildings, construction sites, infrastructural systems, and they had this kind of really fascinating philosophy where they told me that they saw the city as sort of like an operating system. It’s built to force people to function in a particular way, it forces you to move through the city in a certain way, to interact with it in a certain way. And what they were doing, I eventually came to call place-hacking, because it was kind of like they were hacking the operating system of the city, they were trying to wiggle into the guts and see how things work, and their curiosity was just overwhelming, and I ended up spending 10 years with these explorers sneaking into hundreds of off-limits locations all over the world. And I saw some pretty incredible things, and that ended up being my first book, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.
Brett McKay: What was the most incredible thing you came across during those 10 years?
Brad Garrett: Well, there’s so much. So we went on this 10-day road trip around Europe and snuck into about 100 buildings, and at the end of it, we had some intel that there was a metro system in Antwerp in Belgium that was… They started constructing in the 1980s, I believe, and they never finished it. And we looked on Google Earth and there was a massive hole that you could see from Google Earth, and so we went out about 3:00 AM with some ropes and we rappelled into the hole, and we ended up dropping down about 100 feet onto a train platform, and we flicked on the light switch and all the lights came on in this metro system. So imagine this, there’s about, I don’t know, seven, eight miles of tunnel system, but the tracks were never laid, the platforms are there, but the trains were never brought in, and we walked the entire thing and we thought at one point actually, that we were stuck in there because the ascenders that we had to get back up the ropes got jammed, and luckily, we found a fire exit, but it got a bit hairy there for a minute. We thought we were gonna have to call the fire department or something.
Brett McKay: And urban exploration, it’s like that gray area, it’s usually illegal, sometimes not, but typically illegal. Did you ever get in trouble for doing this stuff?
Brad Garrett: I’ve been caught a handful of times, and more often than not, it’s a security guard that catches you, not a police officer, and they don’t really wanna let the people that they work for know that they found like four people with backpacks and cameras wandering around and wherever. So usually they’ll just send you on your way. We did have one instance where the police were called. We were on top of a roof in London, taking photos of the city, and we heard all these sirens, and we were like, “Oh, something’s going on down there,” and we looked over the edge of the building and they had surrounded the building. [chuckle] And so they obviously were there for us and they were gonna bring in dogs, there was no doubt about it, so we just… We went down, hands up, and said, “Hey, we’re photographers. We’re not doing anything nefarious.” And one of the police officers said, he’s like, “You’re not photographers, let me see your camera.” So we started flipping through the photos and he said, “These photos are… These are fantastic.” [chuckle]
He was actually really kind of interested in what we were doing, but eventually he said, “I’ll let you guys go, but you need to delete all those photos, ’cause obviously, the property owner is not very happy about the prospect of you releasing those online and everyone realizing that their security is lax,” so yeah, it is a gray area in that not a lot of people… Most of the time people don’t know that we’re there right until the photos are posted, and sometimes people really don’t care at all, but every once in a while, we get into something that we… That’s super sensitive state infrastructure, and then you can end up in some trouble, and eventually we did have a police investigation launched against us because we were sneaking into all the abandoned metro stations in the London Tube, and the British Transport Police, who are in charge of security there, were really not happy that we were getting away with that, so they eventually took down our doors with battering rams and confiscated all of our equipment and sent us to court and the court throw out the charges, but we ended up being on bail for two years. They took my passport, so I got stuck in the UK for two years awaiting trial, and by the time we actually got to trial, I feel like I had already served the sentence for what we were doing.
Brett McKay: Urban exploration, it’s a subversive sub-culture because you’re doing things that are… You’re going places where you shouldn’t go, and your work with urban exploration led you to exploring the cultures of bunkers, prepping and survivalism. How did those two worlds connect or collide?
Brad Garrett: One of the places… So we ended up finding all these Cold War bunkers that were underneath London, and obviously they were built for a nuclear attack on the capital and they were never used, and some of them, they were fascinating, they still had supplies in them, they still had food and water, signage to direct people where to go. And you can kind of imagine people being down there and thinking about when they’re going to emerge from this bunker into the post-apocalyptic world. Imagine popping the hatch to that bunker and you emerge into this blast-stricken city that’s totally irradiated, and I kept running through those fantasies in my head about these bunkers that were never used. And then one of the bunkers that we had explored called Burlington, it’s in Wiltshire just outside of London, it’s a massive subterranean secret city, there’s about 60 miles of roads down there, radio broadcasting facilities, a library that you would need to reconstruct the government in the event of nuclear war. A totally fascinating place. Well, this bunker, the government obviously didn’t know what to do with it after the end of the Cold War, and so they put it up for sale, and one of the potential buyers was a California real estate developer called Robert Vicino.
And I just called Robert and said, “What do you wanna do with this thing?” And he outlined for me this incredible scenario where that kind of mirrored what the government had planned to do, but he was gonna do it for private individuals. He wanted to purchase the bunker and then kit it out for about 300 people, and the idea was that his paying clients would be able to retreat into that bunker, wait out some sort of calamity and then emerge into the post-apocalyptic world, and that was the beginning of my research with preppers, and I’ve spent the past three years traveling to four continents and interviewing more than 100 people, seeing the bunkers that they’re building and talking to them about the apprehensions that they have about this kind of uncertain future that we all seem to be headed into.
Brett McKay: When we think of bunkers, we typically think of it as a relatively modern thing, it’s coming across the abandoned Cold War bunker, ’cause everyone was freaked out there was gonna be nuclear annihilation, but you highlight the fact at the end of the book that humans have been building bunkers, like for millennia. So what are some examples of ancient bunkers that we know about?
Brad Garrett: It’s obviously hard to trace back some kind of original bunker, because human beings would have been moving into caves where they would have been caching supplies and stockpiling things and probably building up some sort of defenses, but in terms of large-scale communal bunkers, we can actually trace those back 2000 years to Central Anatolia, what is now Turkey, and if anyone ever gets a chance to go out, who knows when we’re gonna travel again, but if anyone gets a chance to go to Istanbul, you can actually jump on a bus to Cappadocia and see some of these subterranean cities. One of them that was constructed was first carved out by the Hittites in 530 BCE, I think, and eventually they had room underground for 20,000 people. So again, these are huge subterranean cities, and they would have had livestock down there, stockpiled supplies, and this was a space of protection. The underground has always been for human beings a place where we protect what is most important to us. It’s space for defense, it’s also where we bury the things that we’re scared of. We’ve got long associations with, cultural associations with the underground and the underworld, so it’s a place of fear, but also a place of safety.
And that juxtaposition flows through over the next 2000 years. By the time we get to World War II and the Cold War, bunkers are being built en masse all over the world, but they are a reflection of our past, they’re a reflection of our speculative anxieties about all the things that could go wrong in the world, and for me that it feels like they’re a very human space, human beings are unique in their ability to speculate about things that might happen and prepare for those things.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about it. So we’ve been building bunkers for a long time in different forms, but yeah, it really took off in the 20th century, because we all know, ’cause like the threat of the nuclear annihilation, that was the thing. Everyone started building bunkers, government started building bunkers. But you also explored what… I didn’t know about this, decisions that US leaders made in the 1940s, 1950s that influenced how bunker building was approached in the United States. So what decisions do they make that influenced and what happened in America that differed in other countries?
Brad Garrett: So there was a team of nuclear strategists that were kind of philosophers, they were fascinating people that were trying to think through the psychological, ethical, moral, social, political implications of nuclear war. And one of those strategists was called Herman Kahn, he worked for the RAND Corporation, and Kahn came up with an estimate, which he supplied to the government, to create blast shelters for every American. So a blast shelter is different than a fallout shelter, a fallout shelter is, it couldn’t take a bomb hit, but you could hide in there for a couple of weeks and then re-emerge when the radiation levels are low. So Kahn said that’s not sufficient. What we need is blast shelters for every American, and the estimate that he submitted, I think to the Eisenhower administration, where essentially, it was essentially our gross domestic product for a year, it was an astronomical sum of money. So the Eisenhower administration made the decision eventually to spend, I think, one-1000th of that on basically locating places that could be used as fallout shelters, like parking garages, for instance, and every once in a while when you’re traveling around, you’ll see these small signs that have the radiation symbol on them, and they say “fallout shelter.”
Those are from the Cold War. But essentially what happened is it in the background, the government was building bunkers for themselves, so they were… The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, for instance, they started building a massive bunker under there. Obviously, the White House has a bunker under it. They started building large-scale underground government facilities at NORAD Raven Rock, and we didn’t realize that… The general public didn’t realize that this had happened until after the Cold War, and I think there was a real sense of betrayal because in other parts of the world, the government did build those blast shelters for every human being. In Switzerland, for instance, they’ve got space for 110% of the population, which I find hilarious. And I guess they just built some extra space in case tourists were in town or whoever, it’s a very different philosophy, and it draws a sharp contrast between the kind of small state rugged individualism, take care of yourself ethos that we have here in the United States.
It sits in stark contrast with places in Scandinavia and in Europe, and even in the Soviet Union, where they did a much better job of building protection for everyone, which at the end of the day wasn’t needed, of course, these places look like architectural follies to us now, they were never used for their intended purposes, but if that nuclear war had unfolded in the way that it was expected it might, the United States would have been in a terrible situation.
Brett McKay: Well, and like most things, if the state’s not going to provide something, the private sector will step in and provide a service that people want, so you saw, you talk about this too, in the ’50s, private companies or even magazines, publications, giving families, people instructions on how to build their own blast shelter.
Brad Garrett: Yeah, yeah. Sears was in on it. There were a number of companies that were selling these kind of backyard fallout shelters. Social scientists call this the Doom Boom, this kind of multi-million dollar industry that emerged almost overnight in response to the nuclear threat and the clear government mandate pushing the burden of preparation on individuals. There was actually a famous speech that Kennedy gave in 1961, where he said essentially, it was the responsibility of every American to make their own preparations for nuclear war, and so yeah, a private market emerged, as it always will, to serve those needs. And what we’re seeing right now around the world, and what my book is primarily about is this second Doom Boom. We’re back in the moment where people feel incredibly uneasy about not just nuclear war, but the possibility of artificial intelligence running rampant or an asteroid slamming into the earth or political unrest, civil war 2.0 breaking out. And so people are going to these bunker builders in droves, and the private industry is emerging to meet those demands again, and now we’re looking at a multi-billion dollar industry which is serving up, according to my most recent estimates, almost 12 million Americans who are actively prepping.
Brett McKay: Well, okay, so let’s talk about the state of bunker building today and what’s driving it, like the psychology of it. So in times past, ancient times, they were probably bunkering for war; in the ’50s, there were people bunkering because they were afraid there was gonna be a nuke dropped near them, so they had to be ready for that. And you just highlight a whole bunch of things that the people you talk to spattered off, and the reason why they were building a bunker or why they were prepping. And what’s interesting about all these different things, whether it’s AI, political unrest and nuclear stuff still on the table, is that it’s not like a specific fear, you said it’s more… Like instead… People were just sort of dread, they’re just dreading the future. So what do you think is the difference between fear and dread? And why do you think dread is a big driving cause of the bunker building?
Brad Garrett: It’s a great question. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out the difference between anxiety, dread and fear as I was working through this book, because you’re right. Fear has an object, it’s concrete, you can pinpoint the thing that you fear, whereas dread is more amorphous or anxiety is more amorphous as well. You’re feeling a sense of dread about a general sense, it’s a general sense of unease, it’s kind of hard to put parameters around, and a lot of the people, a lot of the preppers that I spoke to for this book, they didn’t have a specific thing that they were prepping for, they were prepping for a range of calamities and that it affects the way that you build, because if you’re putting an air filter on your bunker, for instance, you make sure that it can filter out nuclear biological and chemical contaminants.
If you’re worried about an electromagnetic pulse that could be produced from a coronal mass ejection from the Sun, or potentially the detonation of a nuclear weapon high in the atmosphere that would wipe out electrical systems, then you harden for that. You get hardened solar panels, battery backups, you shield everything, and if you interpret the architecture of these bunker builders who are all around us building these communities in that way, you start to see the architecture of dread, you start to see that people are building for, they’re building for the unknown, and we can see that in other points in the past too.
One of my favorite examples is in Mexico, in the Yucatan Peninsula. Just at the end of the post-classic Maya era, when the Spanish had come over and brought disease with them, the Maya didn’t know what where these diseases were coming from, and so they started building walls, and they had never built walls before around their settlements. And so you get these kind of beautiful pyramids that have been there for thousands of years, and then suddenly they start building these kind of really haphazard walls around the places that they’re residing to keep out the virus, to keep out the diseases that they can’t see, because they don’t know where they’re coming from. The architecture of dread that I’m seeing now, that I explore in this book, it feels to me like a similar, like it’s mirroring that history, that if we were to look back at this 100 years from now, it tells a story about our collective sense of unease, and that’s essentially what the book is about.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like… I mean, sure, humans have experienced dread throughout history, but it sound like dread is a very modern phenomenon, because we know so many possible unknowns, and so you have to prepare for all of them. And that’s pretty much impossible to do.
Brad Garrett: Well, we all have this sense that watching the news makes us really depressed because you learn about things that you don’t necessarily need to know about, but it’s depressing to know them anyway. If you had no idea that an asteroid was coming to hit the Earth, you wouldn’t care, it would just happen and you’d be dead. But now, of course, we would have information about that, we would all be watching it approaching on the news and going through…
Brett McKay: It would be a live stream…
Brad Garrett: It would be a live stream, yeah, completely, but it’s kind of… We’re just saturated with this drip-feed of dread, bad news from every corner of the world 24 hours a day, and we’re also… I think this is really important. We’re also confronting more existential threats than we ever have in history, so an existential threat, meaning something that could actually exterminate our entire species. Most of the existential threats that we face are things that we’ve created, and so that’s kind of an interesting thing that we’re putting ourselves through all of these psychological machinations, because of situations that we’ve created. We created nuclear weapons, we are creating the automation that may put us out of jobs, we’re creating the artificial intelligence that may decide that we’re in the way of its own advancement and wipe us out.
All of these things are issues that some people are concerned about and are running through in their heads all the time, and that’s absolutely affecting our psychology, it’s affecting our behavior, it’s affecting our social systems, our social fabric, all of these things are being drastically affected, and this is a unique point in human history, there’s never been another time when we face such myriad existential threats.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So as you explore different companies building bunkers for people, what I found, there’s basically two general approaches on how in this bunker building world and how to do it, there’s a communal approach where you build bunkers where a whole bunch of people live together, and then there’s the rugged individualists, where everyone has… Like sort of like the 1950s in America model, everyone has their own bunker in their backyard that they can go to. When you talk to people in these two camps, why would… Did you ever get a feel like why one person would be drawn to one approach or the other?
Brad Garrett: Yes, it was really interesting. The backyard bunker builders would tell me that the problem is other people, and so you can’t trust people, you don’t know who you’re gonna end up in that bunker community with. And the people who are moving into communities were saying, you’re never gonna survive on your own, you need a community of people with complementary skills that can help people get through things. So it is very much a breakdown between are we creating a new tribe to make it through together, or is it… Or is it every man for himself? And the Cold War reaction to the existential threat of nuclear war was definitely a… I’m gonna protect myself and my family and build a bunker in my backyard, and I’m gonna protect that bunker from my neighbors. It’s interesting to me that we’re now seeing, I would say the majority of prepper communities or prepper developments are communities now, they’re people who are moving in together and seeking not just safety in a material defensive sense, but also seeking community. People are desperate to find a connection again. And so the building of the bunker and the stockpiling of it and learning about renewable technologies and all of that is part of the process of building a new community of like-minded people that you might survive with.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about one of these companies who’s trying to build communities of bunkers, and it’s the first one is the Vivos group. Tell us about them and what’s their approach and what are the sort of people who are buying space from them?
Brad Garrett: Well, so just to be clear, the Vivos group is Robert Vicino, he’s the guy who was gonna buy that bunker in England that initially got me into this project. And when I spoke to him, he was just in the process of acquiring these bunkers in South Dakota from the US government. These are World War II bunkers, they were built originally to store ordinance, so they were full of bombs, which is wonderfully ironic that you would build a bunker to protect bombs, and now they’re protecting people, but Robert’s, his idea was that he would purchase this bunker field, there’s 575 semi-subterranean concrete bunkers there, that stretch over an area about three quarters the size of Manhattan, it’s an absolutely huge facility. And his idea was that he would buy this facility and then sell off the individual bunkers. Initially they were 25 grand, I think he’s now in phase two, so it’s literally like a real estate development, phase one sold out, and now he’s selling phase two, and phase two is going for $35,000.
And I was there, I was there on day one. I met the first four preppers that moved into the place. There was Milton, he worked for the Chicago VA as an IT manager, he eventually quit his job and moved into the bunker full-time. Mark, an engineer from Minnesota, Tom who is working in biotech in Atlanta, a totally fascinating community of people from very different backgrounds who came there with their families, and they were interested in buying into this community, and building something new, and we’re about, I think, three years on now, from my first visit to that place and I’ve gone back periodically to check in with everyone. And it’s blooming, it’s kind of incredible. There must be 30 or 40 families and individuals living there now, and it’s starting to look like a typical American suburban cul-de-sac with white picket fences and American flags hanging over the blast doors.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I sent them a message to ask if they were all going to be retreating to their bunkers, and they said, yep, we’re all here, no one’s infected, everyone’s safe, no one’s coming in or out, we’ve got all the supplies we need. And they were happily barbecuing while the rest of us were panic shopping for toilet paper.
Brett McKay: So just to be clear, some of the people who own these bunkers plan to come to these bunkers whenever there’s an emergency, but there’s some people who live there full-time already, but these bunkers, they’re just basically little cement rooms, right?
Brad Garrett: Exactly. Yeah, you could fit an 18-wheeler in there, they’re about that size. But the blast door, you couldn’t actually get a vehicle through the blast door, which are incredibly heavy.
Brett McKay: Right, so the Vivos Group, they seem to be offering a very basic, relatively affordable bunker option, you get this cement room and then you… It’s up to you to deck it out how you want. But then you go visit this company who is trying to build a community of… A luxe bunker for high net worth individuals. Let’s talk about that, and it’s being built in an abandoned missile silo, so this is another irony, right? We’re turning things that were once housing missiles that had warheads on them, now we’re gonna go to them for safety. Tell us about this company and what they’re doing, and who are the type of people who are joining this community?
Brad Garrett: Yeah, this guy, he’s called Larry Hall, he’s another property developer based in Kansas, and he purchased an Atlas F nuclear missile silo from the US government for $300,000, and then spent $10 million of his own money turning this into a 15-story inverted skyscraper. So there’s condos inside this missile silo now, and when you get in the elevator and it takes you down instead of up, and you descend into the building, and he’s selling half-floor condos for $1.5 million, full-floor condos for $3 million. And the incredible thing about this facility, we’ll get into the technical details, but the most incredible thing about it is that he sold out within the first year, he sold every single condo in there, and I think made about $10 million in profits, which he’s now using to build a second one. He bought another one from the federal government, so you could eventually imagine this kind of archipelago of subterranean citadels stretching across Kansas. In a landscape that’s almost devoid of topography, the only hills that you see are the mounds sitting on top of the bunkers. But this could withstand a nuclear warhead, you could drop it right on the bunker and it would survive. They’ve got nuclear biological chemical air filters, volcanic ash scrubbers, reverse osmosis water filtration systems.
I think he has three different power systems, he’s got solar, wind and diesel generators as a back-up, and he’s got diesel fuel for five years, so they can run totally off the grid inside the bunker. And he’s also got a lot of amenities down there, a rock climbing wall, a dog park, swimming pool, library, a movie theater. I was down there for a day and I could quite happily stay down there for three months. I actually offered to finish my book in the bunker, and he kicked me out. They’ve even got a shooting range down there, and when I asked him about all of those luxuries, he said, “These aren’t luxuries.” He said, “If you’re gonna lock people inside a bunker and tell them that they can’t leave because it’s in their own best interest, and this is the service they paid for, is we’re gonna protect them from what’s happening outside of the bunker, you’ve got to keep those people distracted.” His goal was to have people feel a sense after they had gone into lockdown that they were continuing life as they had been as much as possible, so he told me he wanted it to function like a cruise ship.
And there’s an interesting… All of the bunker builders that I spoke to were kind of obsessed with time, like they had a number that they wanted to hit, like three months, one year, five years, and they would build the bunkers for that time. So this goes back to what we were talking about it. You don’t build for a specific threat, you build for a time period, and so Larry Hall told me, “I’ve built this thing for five years, and in those five years there’s gonna be rotating jobs. We’re gonna make sure that everyone knows how to do everything in this bunker, but we’re also gonna make sure that are keeping themselves entertained, that things are kept under control.” They had a grocery store in there, and he said, “We insist that everyone comes grocery shopping every three days, just so that they see each other, we don’t want anyone taking all the food and locking themselves in their room.” He put a great deal of thought into maintaining psychological and social equilibrium inside the bunker. However, I think this is a really important point, in contrast to South Dakota, where all of those residents were building together, talking together, they’ve already built a community.
In contrast to that, the people who had bought space in Larry Hall’s bunker, who obviously are millionaires and billionaires that can afford to spend that much money, cash, by the way, for these bunkers, they had never lived in it, and they don’t know each other. So you really have no idea who you’re gonna end up locked in this bunker with for five years, and I guess that’s the beginning of the fictional horror story that you could write about the survival condo.
Brett McKay: Right, it sounds like a Twilight Zone episode or like a 1950s existential novel by Sartre or Camus or something like that, that’s the set-up.
Brad Garrett: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. Sartre said, hell is other people. That’s his play, No Exit, is just three people stuck in a room. It’s like the worst possible thing you can imagine.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we got that luxe, so these are companies who are catering towards helping people build communities or live to… Building bunkers and lots of people together, but then there’s still companies out there who are catering to people who just want a bunker in their backyard. And so these people, they say they just want to take care of themselves, and it seems like it’s not just, they don’t wanna… They think other people are the problem, it seems like, I got the hunch from reading your book, that these folks also, like building a bunker in their backyard was sort of an act of rebellion or they’re trying to… It was about privacy, they didn’t want the government or like Amazon or Google to know they had this thing in their backyard.
Brad Garrett: Yeah, so I guess that’s one of the arguments of the backyard builders, is they would say that these communities, whether it’s Survival Condo or xPoint or wherever, those communities are known, they are on the map, and they feel that those communities are gonna become a target if things go rapidly downhill. And so these backyard builders are buying bunkers, often they’re having them delivered in the middle of the night and having them buried in their backyards when no one’s looking. And for a lot of them, they’re concerned about surveillance tracking, they’re worried about aerial imagery, satellites, the phone in their pockets, which are tracking their every movement, and so the bunker for them, it’s kind of like the ultimate man cave, it’s like where you can hide… Your phone doesn’t work, no one knows that it’s there, if you’ve done a good job hiding it.
And for many of them, they explained it to me as an act of resistance against the surveillance state, they didn’t want people… They wanted to have something that was theirs and that was secret, and a secret they didn’t need to share with anyone. And it feels to me like that is now the primary reason for building backyard bunkers. No one is under the illusion that you’re gonna be able to survive for three months in this bunker, particularly after… We all know suffered the self-isolation of dealing with the pandemic, and we know how we all started to crack just six weeks in, it’s just insufferable, you wanna get outside, you wanna see people and talk to people. So no one is under the illusion that they’re gonna be able to spend months or years in their backyard bunker, but it does give them a place… It’s like a storm shelter, it gives them a place where they could go down for two or three days and make it through an event, and in the meantime, they can use it as a kind of secret space to work on their own projects without being tracked and surveilled.
Brett McKay: And these things, these backyard bunkers, they’re usually just like a corrugated pipe, right, like a big giant thing you put in the ground and you put dirt over it?
Brad Garrett: Yeah, so there’s two major manufacturers. The first is Atlas Shelters and the second is Rising S, and I spend time in both of their factories and they’ve got totally different methods. Atlas S does these circular corrugated iron backyard shelters and then Rising S does these big blocky steel shelters that almost look like like Legos, like you could piece them together, so if you wanted a bigger bunker, you could just kind of weld another one on to it and build a longer one. And these guys are hilarious, they are at war with each other on social media, on YouTube, just trash-talking each other, constantly trying to find the other guys’ bunker that has collapsed to prove that they’re a fraud. They should make a reality TV show about these guys. I.
Brett McKay: I bet there will be some day. So we’ve been talking about a bunker building in the United States, and we typically think of prepping and survivalism as sort of an American phenomenon, but you visited other countries where there’s also prepping cultures. Any countries stood out to you in particular? How is it different from the United States?
Brad Garrett: Well, in Europe, for instance, people don’t have the space that we have, and so prepping for them often was having an escape plan, stockpiling a bit of extra food. I saw people stuffing things under their beds, absolutely filling every nook and cranny in their tiny apartments that they could to be better prepared. And then I went to… I went to Thailand, ’cause there was a Canadian who had moved to Thailand to build this, he called it an eco fortress. It was like a block citadel that he had built in an abandoned orchard, just outside of Chiang Mai. It was the most bizarre location to build a bunker that I can imagine, in this tiny village, but his idea was that it would… He wanted to build this kind of off-grid second home that was a bunker. It had a nuclear fallout shelter and man traps and CCTV systems, there are no windows on the bottom, so it’s incredibly difficult to assail, all of the windows are bullet-proof.
But he didn’t want it to feel like a bunker, so it had this… The middle of the building was an open atrium and light would flood through into the center of the building down to the swimming pool. He was growing vines of passion fruit along the walls. It was a beautiful location, and then he took me up to the roof where he had a hatch that he could lock from the roof, so if someone actually got into the building, he could get on to the roof and lock the hatch, and that would be his final hold out, and he was showing me a solar panel array on the roof and I looked across the jungle that was behind his bunker, and there was a Buddhist wat there, and there’s this like 20-foot tall gold Buddha that was emerging from the jungle staring at this doomsday bunker that a Canadian had built in the middle of the jungle.
It was just one of those moments… There were a lot of surreal moments in the course of writing this book, but I think that that really takes the cake in terms of just being utterly shocked by people’s ambition and audacity and building these kinds of spaces. And that story… Actually, this didn’t make it into the book because it happened after I finished, after we published, but that story has a really unfortunate ending. Augie, the guy who had built that, he worked on oil rigs, that’s how he made his money. And he was actually on an oil rig when the pandemic hit, and he got stuck on the rig for two months, I think, and then stuck for another two months because Thailand wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have a Thai passport, and so his wife and kid were inside his 80% finished bunker while he got trapped kind of floating around the world in the midst of the pandemic, precisely the thing that he had been building the bunker for.
Brett McKay: Man, so besides Thailand you went to Australia. I thought that was interesting. The prepping culture in Australia. They’re prepping. Their main concern is like wildfires, that was like the wildfires they had a few years ago, that really kicked off prepping in Australia.
Brad Garrett: Yeah. They had terrible fires in Victoria, hundreds of people died or burned to death, it was a really tragic situation. And of course, the bush fires have been escalating every year, last year, essentially the entire continent was on fire, I think over a billion animals died in those wildfires. And so people there, they respond to that in two ways, and you’ll find this is common with preppers, that they either wanna bug in or bug out, do you hunker down and stay where you are to make it through things, or do you pack up a rig, four-wheel drive mobile bunker and then take off and get out of harm’s way. So I met a lot of Australians that had built these incredible four-wheel drive vehicles with tents on top of them and every supply you could possibly imagine towed in trailers. Those are pretty cool to watch people deploy in the middle of the bush, 100 miles from anything and they’re like doing their laundry on a solar panel.
But then there are also people who are buying… They’re called fire bunkers. For about 25 grand you can have someone put a bunker in your backyard, just like those nuclear fallout shelters people were building during the Cold War, but these are… They’re sealed, they’re air tight, so if you’ve got a fire that’s raging through, you can get into this bunker and lock the hatch and its fireproof, and you’ve got an hour or two of oxygen in there, and then a couple of backup tanks, if you need to go onto those, and essentially you just let the fire pass over you. And the idea is you might lose your property, but you won’t lose your life. And people are… One of the guys that I talked to who was building these bunkers said he was absolutely overwhelmed, he’s got… The backlog goes on for years for projects, so if anyone wants to make some serious money, move to Australia and go open a fire bunker company.
Brett McKay: Well, you’ve mentioned bugging out, in Australia, they’re building these rigs, but there’s a market in the United States for building what’s called bug out vehicles, and they look like war rigs from some apocalyptic movie. So what… Are these bug out vehicles, are they designed to get you somewhere or they just designed where you can live in it too?
Brad Garrett: It’s a bit of both. So I visited these guys in Utah that started buying Humvees from the US military, and essentially when you buy it from the military, you can get them with really low miles, ’cause sometimes they just use them to drive around a base or whatever, but before they sell them, they take the armor off of them, and so these guys were… Started making armor kits, and they would buy the vehicles from the government, put the armor back on them and then sell them on the private market, so again, a private industry stepping in to do what government isn’t doing, ’cause you can’t buy these vehicles commercially. And these guys made it very clear that they didn’t have any faith in FEMA, for instance, to show up on time and ready to go in the case of an emergency, so they just started building their own vehicles and the vehicles got more and more extreme. Eventually they started putting gun turrets on top of them, they’ve got these kind of armored RVs, six wheel drive RVs, with beds and showers in them, and some of those are stocked with supplies as well, so you could essentially live out of it.
And what they told me… So they started going into disasters, and they told me that they never intended to build these vehicles to escape from something, they built these vehicles to assist, so again, they were stepping in where the government… They felt the government wasn’t doing their job. And they had gone into a couple of disasters, there was some flooding in Wimberley, Texas a couple of years ago, and they went into the flood zone and were actually rescuing people, and they had a couple of encounters with FEMA where FEMA told them to stop helping, which is kind of incredible, because they felt like they were doing a public service almost. But they’ve now created a Disaster Relief crew, and they’ve got people on call all over the country who have bought these vehicles and when disaster strikes somewhere, they will call people in the local area who they know have the vehicles and are equipped to help and they’ll send them into the disaster zone.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this is interesting, ’cause you talk about different approaches, there’s different sub-cultures of prepping within the larger prepping culture, and these guys are in Utah, they’re Mormon, and it seems like, you went to Utah, you also talked Mormons ’cause Mormons, they do a lot of prepping, they got food storage and whatnot, and you saw a subtle difference in what their approach was to, say, someone in some other part of the United States.
Brad Garrett: Getting access to some of these facilities like the survival condo, the subterranean skyscraper in Kansas, it took me over a year. I had to just badger the hell out of them to be able to get access to that. When I went to Utah, the Mormons just let me into everything. They were the easiest people to do field work with. I would roll up to these factories where they were producing oats, pasta, long-term food storage that they were putting in 25 years shelf life cans, and those end up in people’s basements all around Salt Lake City, all around Utah. They would just let me into the factory, let me see everything, volunteer on the line if I wanted to, and then eventually I started going to people’s houses and seeing their basements and talking some about the preparations they made, and they all made it very clear that since the Cold War, the church has asked them to prep, they’ve asked these people to set aside at least three months worth of food, and the idea was never that that food was to sustain themselves or their families solely, it was about being able to pool those resources in the event of a disaster and make sure that everyone in the church could make it through, so again, a community ethos.
And there’s another interesting connection there, because one of the, I guess, prophets of the church that was on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Ezra Taft Benson, he was one of those people that was encouraging Mormon families to prep during the Cold War, and he also ended up advising the, I think it was the Eisenhower administration, on…
Brett McKay: Yeah, he was the Secretary of Agriculture.
Brad Garrett: Secretary of Agriculture, right, and so the idea that the government would encourage everyday citizens to make their own preparations, I think that actually came from him. So it actually came from the Mormon Church.
Brett McKay: So when you talk to these people, a lot of their focus is on building the bunker and preparing and being safe whenever whatever event they’re preparing for happens, but when you talk to these people, like do they have… Do you have an idea if they had a plan of what they’re gonna do after, like when they had to leave the bunker?
Brad Garrett: Yeah, the emergence into the post-apocalyptic world. A lot of these preppers and particularly the bunker builders, who I call the dread merchants in the book, it’s in their interest to stoke people’s fears, it’s in their interest to make people feel that the world is a terrible place and that we’re headed down the wrong track, because all of that’s gonna help sales. But when I would ask them what is the plan on the other side, then it would turn into this total fiction very often, where it’s like, well, a large percentage of the population is gonna be gone, there’s gonna be all this land, the economy is gonna boom, there’s gonna be plentiful resources. So it’s this kind of fantasy that we see playing out in post-apocalyptic films and literature, but we all kind of like to think about the idea of being in a world that’s still full of stuff, like grocery stores are packed, but there’s no one there. It’s the kind of zombie narrative, and you can just grab whatever you want and make your own way through the world. Americans love those narratives that they’ll just be totally on their own.
But realistically, I didn’t hear people talking about what they were going to do, what the plan was, how would they rebuild, how would they find community again. And I think that that’s one of the major blind spots in all of these scenarios. I have to say, though, after spending years with them, I became convinced that we are in a unique point in human history, we do face more threats than we ever have in the past, the possibility of things going wrong is in front of us all the time, because of the way we’ve built our society, it’s incredibly fragile, the infrastructural supply lines and global trade that we depend on, the technology that we depend on now, it’s all put us in a very fragile position. But I didn’t hear a lot of people telling me what the alternative was, no one wants to go back to some… There’s not some Edenic time in the past that people wanna return to, and they’re fantasizing about this future where things would be different because they’re frustrated with the present, but they’re not necessarily telling me what that future is gonna be.
Brett McKay: So I think it’s interesting. The conclusion that I got from the book was typically in the broader culture, people look at people who build bunkers, the prepping community, sort of they’re out there, it’s a sub-culture, kind of weird, maybe a little bit crazy, but I got the idea that after spending so much time with these guys and talking… You just said that there is a logic. They are actually being pretty rational because, as you said, there’s so many potential things that could wipe us out, it would just make sense to prepare for that moment.
Brad Garrett: Or not even wipe us out, but just a… Just cause chaos. The pandemic has caused chaos, who knows what’s gonna happen with the election. We’re constantly facing all sorts of turmoil and yeah, it came to feel like these preppers are rationally responding to an irrational world. Things are complicated and frustrating, and many of them felt helpless in being able to change any of this, what can they do about the climate crisis, what can they do about nuclear weapons, it feels kind of hopeless and helpless, and so building a bunker for them was about taking control of their immediate parameters. If you can at least control what’s in front of you and what’s around you, then for many of them, it gave them a sense of peace and so… Yeah, I was shocked how calm many of them were, I kind of expected them to be, as you say, kind of kooky and weird and paranoid, and that’s not at all what I found.
I found communities of people, and here I’m talking about the preppers themselves, not the people selling bunkers, who are hysterical for the most part, but the preppers themselves that are moving into these communities and buying these bunkers are… They’re just everyday people doing jobs like you and me, and they’re frustrated and they’re scared, they’re worried, and they’re trying to take control of what they can to give themselves and their families a bit of peace.
Brett McKay: Have you become a prepper a little bit since you finished this book?
Brad Garrett: Yeah. I’m supposed to be in Ireland right now, but I’ve ended up remote teaching because of the pandemic, and so I came back to California and I bought a quarter acre of land in the forest, and I’ve got a fantastic internet connection out here, but everything’s super cheap, and I’m starting to stockpile just some basic stuff, I’m not building a bunker or anything, but I’m just gathering some tools, starting to do my own projects, learning how to do electrical wiring. I bought a 1972 GMC long bed pick up that I love, I’ve been working on that all the time. These are things that I’ve been sitting in front of screens for 15 years, writing books, doing research, being an academic, and for… That was one of the revelations that I came to from this project, is I don’t know how to do anything, so prepping for me is actually I’m just building up skills and getting myself a little bit of space and breathing room to be able to do that and I think it’s… I’m finding it to be incredibly valuable, I can feel my confidence building with everything that I learn how to do, and that’s enough preparation for me, just knowing that if something does go wrong, I’ve got a basic skill set that can get me through some things. I don’t necessarily feel the need to start pouring concrete, but maybe I’ll get their one day.
Brett McKay: Maybe one day. Well, Bradley, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Brad Garrett: My website’s bradleygarrett.com. You can find me on social media, my handle’s Goblinmerchant, so you can find me @Goblinmerchant on Twitter, Instagram, wherever. And you can find the book, Bunker: Building for the End Times everywhere, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, wherever you wanna find it, hopefully go into a bookshop, if you can, wherever you are. And I hope everyone enjoys it, I really enjoy getting feedback from it, so if anyone does pick it up and read it, shoot me an email.
Brett McKay: Well, Bradley Garrett, thanks very much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Brad Garrett: Brett, it’s been great, thank you so much, man.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Bradley Garrett, he’s the author of the book Bunker. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, bradleygarrett.com. Also check out our show notes at AoM.is/bunker, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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